Recently I wrote about wearing jeans for work, and had a day long Twitter conversation about the subject. Anyway, for those of you who don’t know, Housing Associations in the UK come from very humble, often radical, beginnings. My own organisation was founded in 1964 by left wing Christians, and beardy beatniks. Here are some charming old photos from the archives.
Long natural hair, untrimmed beards and “NHS” glasses (often known as John Lennon glasses these were the old fashioned frames you could choose, free of charge, with your eye test prescription. They had a plastic coating which could be stripped off to leave metal rims). These housing workers both wear almost identifcal denim shirts, as a jacket, over a T-shirt or shirt. Enthusiastic young people like these two worked their socks off for a low wage, or as volunteers, doing repair work to run down homes to help homeless families in west London. The clothes they chose were pratical and radical.
In this photograph we have an old lady dressed in the fashions of the 1940s, with her fitted wool coat, sturdy leather shoes, thick woolen stockings and a fetching furry hat. The two young men helping her are from a different era. One wears a beard, flared jeans and carries what maybe an old Singer sewing machine. The other man wears an ethnic Indian block printed jacket over his polo neck. He carefully holds the aspidistra aloft.
Most of these committed young people were fired up with concern about homelessness and the terrible circumstances people were often forced to live in, facing intimidation from private landlords as well as sharing grim, run down homes with countless others. They were very hands on, practical people – doing repairs and improvements, driving vans, organising fundraising as well as being anti-establishment. It is no surprise therefore to hear from retired CEO Tom Murtha (@tomemurtha) that “When I started in housing we all wore jeans”, before Robin Lawler (@robin_lawler) added “And beards!”.
Housing Associations did much good in those days and if you want to read more please have a look at our own website. But over time the demand for cheaper homes for people on low incomes became pressing and it was vital to do much, much more. It required huge sums of money, most of which had to be borrowed from banks. In the 1970s this is what a bank manager looked like (women were not allowed into the Stock Exchange until 1972).
In order to get loans the Housing Associations had to become more respectable, more conservatively dressed, as by the 1980s many of those working for Housing Associations were qualified professionals. We still worked with homeless people but many of us had to work with other professionals and we started to copy their styles of dress. There was a joke when I started out that the property development teams all wore double breasted grey suits, had BMWs with car phones (remember?) and boasted about the size of their building programme.
During the 1980s, as you will have appreciated if you watched Wolf of Wall Street, it was all about the money. Although people were still committed to the objective of building homes for low income families they were now running substantial businesses, and they had to look the part. Donald, one of my predecessors, was a Labour party activist as well as a CEO and his slightly random fashion sense (checked shirt with patterned tie can work, but it needs a bit more thought) showed that doing good was far more important than looking good.
Personally I feel indepted to the previous generations, and am inspired by their efforts. Some could not be parted from their denims and remained on the front line until retirement. But many realised that they had to appeal to new audiences and changed their clothes accordingly. Dressing appropriately means respecting those you work for and with – as true today as it ever was.